Caste: A Creation of the Colonial Mind?

Caste: A Creation of the Colonial Mind?
Image Courtesy: Getty Images

“No force can stop caste census now. It is my life’s mission” — Rahul Gandhi (1)

At an event in Delhi held in April 2024, amidst the heat and dust of campaigning for the General Elections, Rahul Gandhi who is one of the principal opponents of the incumbent Prime Minister Modi, declared that a caste census would be the first thing to be done after the I.N.D.I. Alliance (of whom his party is a member) forms a government. Added to this, was Rahul Gandhi’s campaign plank that PM Modi’s public appeal for a mandate of “400 plus” seats in the Lok Sabha (lower house of the Indian Parliament) out of a total of 543 seats that were going to polls, was with a surreptitious intention to ramrod through legislation voiding constitutional provisions allowing for reservations in admission to educational institutions, public sector employment, etc. for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and other backward classes. After the General Election results were announced on June 04, many political commentators in their analysis of the outcome agreed that fears around the abolition of caste-based reservations contributed significantly towards PM Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) performing below expectations.

In his Discovery of India, first published in 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote that anyone who knows anything about India has heard about the caste system. Almost every outsider and many within India condemn it or criticize it as a whole (2). The discourse in the 2024 General Elections showed that caste continues to cast a long shadow on India’s polity.

Empirically, “caste” traces its origin to the Iberian word casta, which in Spanish and Portuguese means “lineage” (3). In the early-1500’s, Portuguese traveler Duarte Barbosa wrote about some features of a caste order after a long stay in the Vijayanagara Kingdom (4).

In the early 1800s, as the East India Company was beginning to administer large parts of India,  French missionary Abe Dubois’ Description of the Characters, Manners, and Customs of the People of India and of their Institutions Religious and Civil first published in English in 1816, came to exercise tremendous influence on British officials. The purchase of the manuscript by the Government of Madras was reported to the Board of Directors of the East India Company in 1807, as an arrangement of great public importance (5). Dubois began his book by describing the “caste system” in India while referring to the varna system. Appreciative of caste, he was disdainful of Hinduism. Dubois was of the view that it was caste that had protected India and by extension Hinduism from foreign influence, even though the land had to suffer foreign invasions. Caste also posed a barrier to conversion efforts to Christianity. Dubois was extremely critical of Brahmins, one reason being the hindrance they presented to conversion. Interestingly, he was much more critical of what he called the “outcaste pariahs”.

British decennial censuses commencing from 1871 onwards, attempted to categorize Indian society into a single pan-India framework of castes. Sanjoy Chakravorty, professor at Temple University, writes, “…The colonizers invented or constructed categories of convenience during a period that covered roughly the 19th century… entirely new categories and hierarchies were created, incompatible or mismatched parts were stuffed together… and flexible boundaries hardened. The resulting categorical system became rigid during the next century and a quarter, as the made-up categories came to be associated with real rights. Religion-based electorates in British India and caste-based reservations in independent India made amorphous categories concrete….” (6)

This trajectory of caste, from its invention during the British colonial rule to its current post-colonial understanding has been elaborated in great detail in Nicholas Dirks’ Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, first published in 2001 (7). Dirks is currently the President & CEO of the New York Academy of Sciences (8).

The richly researched book is divided into four parts. In the first part, Dirks focuses on the ethnographic knowledge of caste produced before 1858, when the British Crown assumed control of the Government of India. The second part describes how British colonial needs sowed the seeds for the construction of caste. The third part expands on how various British administrative exercises, in particular the census, contributed towards building the discourse around caste and its very real impact on society. The fourth part examines the work of Gandhi, EVR Naicker, and B.R. Ambedkar. Dirk postulates that colonial knowledge production had a significant bearing on the intended direction of their efforts, and even on the broader nationalist movement. He concludes the book with the observation that colonial knowledge categories continue to influence contemporary Indian politics and history writing.

Castes of Mind

In the introductory chapter of the book, Dirks mentions that caste is seen today as the core of Indian tradition. To understand India and Hinduism properly, one must understand caste.

He refers to “Homo Hiearchus,” the 1966 scholarly treatise on caste by Louis Dumont. For Dumont, caste expresses a commitment to social values that the modern world has lost. The core value behind the caste system is hierarchy, which has also been the foundation for most societies. The ideological foundation of these hierarchical values in India is the quest for spiritual and otherworldly concerns. Dumont’s view that caste is a sign of India’s religiosity and a marker of India’s difference from modernity which is characterized by a focus on individualism and equality, is largely held in both India and the West.

There are different perspectives on caste. For some, it is a religious system, while for others it is merely social or economic. Some admire the spiritual foundations of a priestly hierarchy, while some see the tyranny of Brahmins and rituals. Some see caste as the Indian equivalent of community, and also those who view caste as an impediment to (the formation of a national) community. But a vast number of commentators, from James Mill in 1817 to Gandhi and Nehru have accepted be it critically or appreciatively, that caste and specifically caste-based hierarchy is somehow fundamental to Indian tradition and culture.

Dirks contends that caste as it is known today, is not a basic facet of Indian tradition. It is rather a modern phenomenon, a direct consequence of British colonial rule. Under the British, “caste” became a single term that came to express and systematize the diverse forms of social community and organization in India. Colonialism produced conditions that made caste the central symbol of Indian society. That said, the discourse of caste has become commonplace and embedded in Indian public life today. It just cannot be wished away.

The book traces the trajectory of caste from medieval kingdoms of South India to early colonial archives, from the ethnographic writings of British bureaucrats and missionaries to those of twentieth-century scholars. Statistical and ethnographic techniques slowly come to substitute historical and textual knowledge, accompanied by an articulate justification for permanent colonial rule. Languages and linguistic groups start being viewed from a racial lens. It is using this framework as a reference that social reform and nationalist resistance movements provide an alternate history (and hence the framework has an influence far beyond what was perhaps originally intended). The twentieth century witnesses the rise of caste politics which weakens the nationalist consensus. The apogee is post-1947 India adopting caste-based reservations as a part of affirmative action.

Dirks highlights the debates over caste-based reservations which followed then Prime Minister V.P. Singh’s implementation of the Mandal Commission report in 1990. Caste as the defining feature of the Indian social system was contrasted with “Hinduism” as an all-embracing religious identity, which was the thrust of the Hindutva movement. Dirks contends that the Hindutva movement (at the time of his writing in 2001), has not managed to wish caste away. It continues to dominate Indian society. Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu have been witness to anti-Brahmin (and by extension anti-caste) movements. Caste has provided the basis for lower-caste political mobilization in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. While caste may no longer provide a sense of civilizational identity and community to the sub-continent, it is the primary form of local identity in many regions, powerful enough to impact polity.

When Ambedkar in western India or EVR Naicker in the south organized political movements around caste, the cultural meaning and political usage of caste got transformed in ways not foreseen by the colonial mandate. Dirks argues that caste endures till today because of a powerful historical narrative, wherein caste was represented as central to Indian society. The book is about the colonial role in the historical construction of caste and the ways caste has come into being.

Colonial conquest required more than superior arms, military organization, or economic wealth. Cultural technologies of rule also helped to facilitate, sustain, and strengthen colonialism. Knowledge both enabled colonial conquest and was produced by it. New categories were created by colonialists, such as European and Asian, modern and traditional.

British colonial rule played a crucial role in the production of what came to be understood as “Indian tradition”. Dirks quotes Bernard Cohn’s remark that to comprehend and act in India, the British reduced complex codes to a few key concepts. Once they had defined to their satisfaction what they construed as Indian customs, Indians had to conform to these constructions.

Dirks refers to a previous work of his wherein he had highlighted that until the emergence of British rule in Southern India (and by implication the whole of India), the political domain was not subjugated to the religious domain. Kings were not inferior to Brahmans. Indian society and by extension caste were shaped by political struggles and processes. After the advent of colonial rule, old forms of politics came to be condemned as feudal. British started to propagate the narrative that the Indian political landscape was full of kings fixated on exploiting their subjects and accumulating wealth. British were ruling India for the sake of Indian subjects, rather than for their gain. Indians lacked a sense of history as a national community, and caste was a sign of it.

Caste was represented as a religious system that had a significant impact on day-to-day social life. A caste-based society conferred membership in a social and ritual rather than a political context. Caste was in opposition to the ideas of both individual action and social mobilization, State in India, when it existed, was despotic and fundamentally irrelevant. British rule could thus be characterized as enlightened, even when it denied Indian subjects the basic rights that were then being taken for granted in civil society in Europe.

Dirks mentions that in pre-colonial India, there were multiple determinants of social identity. Part of a complex and changing political world, their respective relations too changed through place and time. Territorial groups, occupational reference associations, and family units were some of the significant units of identification. Caste, or rather some of the things that are taken to come under caste, was just one way of representing identity. Even for Brahmins, primary beneficiaries of the concept of caste, village groups, or political affiliations could be the primary referent of social identity. Within kingdoms, depending on the fortunes of kings and royal decrees, groups could rise or fall, becoming more or less caste-like in the process.

The idea that varna (classification of all castes into a four-level hierarchical order with the Brahmin at the apex), could form the basis of organizing the diverse social identities and relations existent throughout the sub-continent, was birthed during the British colonial rule. While hierarchy may have been a feature of Indian history, hierarchy in the particular sense of varna being all-pervasive was a colonial construct.

Colonial knowledge production thus asserted a specific form of social representation, citing pre-colonial authorities (going back to the Vedas). With the British ensconced as rulers, caste in this new form lived on. It served colonial interests by helping to maintain social order and by justifying colonial claim to power. In the early years, with the East India Company at the helm, caste supported a distinct form of colonial rule wherein the primary focus was on the collection of agrarian revenues from land and local order. After the British state assumed direct control in 1858, colonial interests in India significantly expanded, from a diversified colonial economy to a geo-strategic one. Alongside, both the understanding and generation of knowledge about caste, continued with renewed vigor. Government gazettes began to have complete chapters dedicated to caste and custom. Then census commissioner H.H. Risley’s announcing his goal of an ethnographic survey of India in 1901, was a key milestone in this colonial project. Thirty years later, petitions to census commissioners, led to the dropping of caste as a census category in 1931.

Dirks surmises that to outline this history of caste is in many ways a narration of the social history of colonialism in India. He terms the late-1800s British rule as an “ethnographic” state, focusing on ethnographic surveys and enumerative censuses. Further, as caste became the building block of social classification and knowledge, it began to contest with nationalist mobilization in places such as Bombay and Madras presidencies. Caste concerns were eventually subordinated to the nationalist movement, and India attained independence in 1947.

Dirks concludes with the observation that caste continues to pervade the body politic of post-1947 India. Be it in constitutional claims about the abolition of caste-based discrimination or the progressive movements focused on the emancipation of women or the rise of anti-Brahmin and backward-caste politics, caste continues to be in the limelight. It is an uncomfortable reminder of community claims on participation, privilege, and exclusion. These can and do put a strain on the national consensus.


We now return to where we started, caste census. Around the time when the Government of India conducted the 2011 Socio-Economic and Caste Census (9), Dr. Padmanabh Samendra from Jamia Millia Islamia authored a paper on the subject (10). He noted that some were for the survey because it would reveal data about particularly disadvantaged castes and enable the state to extend policies, such as reservation, for their upliftment. Those against this exercise argued that it would foment divisive tendencies within the society and polity. Both parties shared the premise that caste has been an undeniable reality of Indian social life since the earliest of times and that the census could map this.

Dr. Samendra posited that caste as conceived in present-day state policies and academic writings was essentially a late-1800s idea. The social structure represented by this term was never the characteristic of Indian society. It is no one’s case that there was no hierarchy or discrimination in India before the genesis of the notion of “caste”. But looking beyond the hierarchies portrayed by “caste,” could help in developing a better understanding of how authority (and by extension, discrimination) operates in Indian society.

Is caste-based affirmative action then the correct approach to ensure more equitable participation across different social groups? While “caste” has been hardwired into present-day policy-making and public debates, as the recently concluded General Election readily demonstrates, this essay hopefully makes the case for a rethink.


1. Deccan Chronicle (April 24, 2024). “No Force Can Stop Caste Census, It is Now My Life Mission: Rahul Gandhi”

2. Nehru, Jawaharlal (1946). The Discovery of India, p 245

3. Wikipedia. Casta

4. Dirks, Nicholas (2001). Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India,
p 19

5. Dirks, Nicholas (2001). Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India,
p 21-25

6. BBC (June 19, 2019). “How the British reshaped India’s caste system”

7. Princeton University Press. Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India


9. Wikipedia. 2011 Socio-Economic and Caste Census,to%20consolidate%20the%20caste%20count.

10. Yumpu. Census in Colonial India and the Birth of Caste

Arun Goel

An MBA with a regular nine-to-five corporate job, Arun spends his free time reading up trying to comprehend the wonder that was and is Bharat